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By ALBEE ZHANG | China Daily | Updated: 2018-08-15 07:57
A Baidu Deur assistant at a KFC outlet in Shanghai can talk with customers and take food orders. [PHOTO BY WANG GANG/FOR CHINA DAILY]

A restaurant in Shanghai has replaced its waiters with robots and, as digital payments via mobile phones already rival cash for many purchases in China, many more automated eateries are expected to open.

The little robotic waiter wheels up to the table, raises its glass lid to reveal a steaming plate of local Shanghai-style crayfish and announces in low, mechanical tones, "Enjoy your meal."

The futuristic restaurant concept is the latest initiative in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba's push to modernize service and retail in a country where robotics and artificial intelligence are increasingly being integrated into business.

Raising efficiency and lowering labor costs are the objectives at Alibaba's Robot. He diners, where waiters have been replaced by robots about the size of microwave ovens, which roll around the dining room on table-high runways.

"In Shanghai, a waiter costs up to 10,000 yuan ($1,500) per month. That's hundreds of thousands in cost every year and two shifts of people are needed," said Cao Haitao, the Alibaba product manager who developed the concept.

"But we don't need two shifts for robots and they are on duty every day."

The diners are attached to Alibaba's new Hema chain of semi-automated supermarkets, where grocery shoppers fill their "carts" on a mobile app and have the merchandise brought to them at checkout via conveyor tracks on the ceiling, or delivered straight to their homes.

Alibaba now has 57 Hema markets in 13 Chinese cities, all of which will eventually feature the robotic restaurants.

Industry experts say they serve more as showcases of Alibaba's tech prowess than a serious business model in a country where labor costs are relatively low.

But the restaurants also typify the rapid adoption of new technologies in the country.

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